Acoustic Guitar in American Popular Music


Brought from European courts to Colonial parlors, the acoustic guitar has been a beloved instrument throughout the history of American music. When steel strings were added at the turn of the century, the guitar became even more versatile and suitable to all types of American popular music. Join Active Minds as we explore the evolution of the instrument and its impact on musical genres from the blues to country, folk, rock, and more.

Key Lecture Points

  • The gut-string classical guitar traveled to the United States with immigrants and quickly became a favorite in the parlors of rich plantation owners. Also immigrating were guitar teachers and makers; in the 1830s both CF Martin and James Ashborn began constructing guitars in America. With the addition of steel strings, the guitar became sturdier, more portable, and more affordable, leading to its popularity across the US territories.
  • The two main type of steel string guitar were the arch-top, a more short-lived version pioneered by the Gibson Company, and the flat-top, the enduring model produced by Martin. Other iterations of guitar construction have been the Dobro resonator guitar and the 12-string guitar.
  • In the early 20th century, the guitar was adapted into blues, as it had the musical flexibility to match the human voice and the plaintive content of the genre. Blues techniques included the bottleneck (or slide), finger picking, hammering, and damping. The self-proclaimed “King of the 12 String Guitar Players of the World” was Huddie Leadbetter, or Leadbelly. Later, blues moved to the cities and the guitar joined string bands and added female singers.
  • White Southern musicians took the European folk song ballad tradition and added instrumentation including the guitar, and country music was born. The Carter Family was known for its mountain music, Jimmie Rodgers for his cowboy music and yodeling, and Bill Monroe for creating the bluegrass style.
  • Folk music became an instrument of protest after WWII for artists and listeners fed up with injustice, war, and politics. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan used the guitar to project their thoughts and “help change the world.” The late 1960s saw a renewed interest in the blues, as urban fans discovered legendary Southern blues guitarists like John Hurt and virtuosos like John Fahey.
  • In the 1970s, singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell used the guitar as accompaniment for their introspective songs, and bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young brought the acoustic guitar into rock with the help of electronic pickups.

Discussion Questions

  • What distinguishes the arch-top guitar from the flat-top guitar?
  • How did the expansion of the US railroad and postal system affect the popularity of the guitar in America?
  • How did Southern Blues and City Blues differ musically or instrumentally?
  • What made Jimmie Rodgers’ country music so distinctive and popular?
  • How was the acoustic guitar used in the civil rights movement of the 1960s? How did Woody Guthrie influence Bob Dylan?
  • What makes the guitar the perfect instrument for singer-songwriters in folk and rock?